One hears much these days of the Urban Farming Movement. One almost expects to glimpse a combine harvester winding down South Broadway or hear a milch cow lowing in a misty alley. But so far, with the exception of a few speckled hens and one ornery rooster in the backyard of an immigrant Haitian family, urban livestock, to say nothing of winter wheat, has been a scarce commodity.
I suppose what is meant by urban farming is just old-fashioned city gardening, and anything with the old fashioned label pegged to it is by definition a good thing. However, in these days of hyper-inflation in everything from grades to gas prices, a Garden-Variety Garden will not do. Hence, the hyperbolic, and mildly insulting name “urban farm.” Katherine Dalton put it best:
The word “farming” means something, and its meaning is not “gardening,” and it’s not “puttering,” and it’s not “edible landscaping.” As small farm advocate Mary Berry Smith likes to emphasize, farming must mean (among many other obvious things, like real work) putting equity at risk…. Urban farming also implies the idea — unproven and unlikely — that we can feed ourselves in the city from city ground, and don’t need to worry about our rural neighbors’ employment, small towns with dead economies, and leaching topsoil.
In other words, just because you know how to apply a bandage to a paper cut does not give you the right to call yourself a trauma surgeon.
Gardening, wherever done, remains chiefly a pleasant, middle-class preoccupation. This is unfortunate, especially these days when local school districts are being ordered to feed poor students three squares a day, presumably because families cannot afford to. In much of the world, gardens are not merely hobbies for the bourgeoisie, they are a way of life, perhaps even a matter of life… or death. But then in much of the world, people practice self-sufficiency and have a healthy fear of the government and its goon squads.
Probably the most well-known self-proclaimed urban agronomist is former professional basketball star Will Allen. Allen, whose parents were South Carolina sharecroppers, left a lucrative marketing job at Procter & Gamble and purchased a foreclosed nursery and 100-acre farm outside Milwaukee. With the help of a MacArthur Fellowship (you heard right, a pro basketball player won a Genius Award), Allen founded Growing Power, Inc., an “urban farming” project that teaches inner-city residents to grow vegetables and such. Says Allen: “It will be an irony, certainly, but a sweet one, if millions of African-Americans whose grandparents left the farms of the South for the factories of the North, only to see those factories close, should now find fulfillment in learning once again to live close to the soil and to the food it gives to all of us.”
IRONY, NOTHING. It will be a miracle, though one devoutly to be wished. One hurdle would-be green-thumbs face is the lack of land. Few of the urban poor own property. Programs like St. Louis’ Gateway Greening try to address this by helping connect residents with garden space, much of it leased from the city’s swollen Land Reutilization Authority (the LRA has more than 8,000 lots), though so far the program has been mostly adopted by — you guessed it — middle-class hipsters and urban pioneers. And even these so-called “community gardens” must be gated and fenced in, which would seem to defeat the whole purpose of a “community” garden. But, in the main, Gateway Greening and other community food projects are merely educational, working to involve poor children in “garden-based education.” Last count, there were more than 60 school gardens in the St. Louis area. If nothing else, students learn that food comes from seeds that somebody must plant in the soil, and does not appear fully-formed through a fast food drive-through window.
Here in the city, the wife and I have a few tomato vines and some edible landscape blooming in our (likely) lead-contaminated soil. We probably do not even rate the distinction of gardener, let alone farmer. We do try to support our local growers, however, by purchasing our fruits and vegetables at the gritty old Soulard Farmer’s Market (“a St. Louis tradition since 1779”), though few of the produce vendors there are actual farmers. Most vendors are urbanites who simply buy leftover produce on the cheap from a nearby wholesale market. This allows them to undercut the real farmers, who, because of this practice, no longer bother attending the market.
But all is not doom and gloom. There is, after all, a burgeoning Urban Farming Movement. I mean urban gardening.
Yes, there is that.